Geopolitical journey: Europe, the glorious and the banal

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Analysing Europe's economic crisis it is worth realising that today’s Europeans have entered a phase of history where the buccaneering spirit has left them. “The desire for knowledge has separated itself from the hunger we have for wealth and glory”, writes George Friedman.

George Friedman is founder and chief executive of Statfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company.

We flew into Lisbon and immediately rented a car to drive to the edge of the Earth and the beginning of the world: Cabo de Sao Vicente. A small cape jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, it is the bitter end of Europe. Beyond this point, the world was once unknown to Europeans, becoming a realm inhabited by legends of sea monsters and fantastic civilizations. Cabo de Sao Vicente still makes you feel these fantasies are more than realistic. Even on a bright sunny day, the sea is forbidding and the wind howls at you, while on a gloomy day you peer into the abyss.

Just 3 miles east of Cabo de Sao Vicente at the base of the Ponta de Sagres lies Sagres, where in 1410 Prince Henry the Navigator founded a school for navigators. If Cabo de Sao Vicente is where the Earth ended for the Europeans, Ponta de Sagres became the place where the world began.

The Making of the Modern World

Prince Henry was the second son of Portuguese King John I. As a member of the royal class, he had the means to finance his ambitions. Those who attended his school included Vasco da Gama, who made the first voyage from Europe to India, and Magellan, whose expedition first circumnavigated the globe. Columbus was once shipwrecked and rescued off the coast, subsequently learning many of his later nautical skills in Portugal. This school gave rise to the most extraordinary alumni association imaginable.

Henry didn't just train seamen, he also financed explorations. During the 15th century, year after year, ships went out. Many, even most, never returned, but all of them pushed just a bit further south. Each voyage produced logs that Henry collected, collated, studied and relied on when planning future expeditions.

His school has long since disappeared along with his palace. Of course, the physical remains of his school don't mean much. History was made here. It was the place where Europe discovered the world, not only in the physical sense, but also in the direct encounters over time with the myriad cultures that made up the world. Europe wasn't kind to the world it discovered. But over time it did force each culture to become aware of all the others; after centuries, a Mongol student might learn about the Aztecs. Instead of a number of isolated worlds, each believing itself to be the center of the Earth, each new discovery fed the concept of a single world.

The Buccaneering Spirit

Today, we have entered a phase of history where the buccaneering spirit has left us. The desire for knowledge has separated itself from the hunger we have for wealth and glory. Glory is not big today, cool is. Cool does not challenge the gates of heaven, it accepts what is and conforms to it. This is a passing phase, however. Humans will return to space to own it, discover unknown wealth and bring glory.

Out in West Texas and other desolate places, private companies are reinventing the space program. They are searching for what Henry sought — namely, wealth and glory. Like the pioneers of flight or Columbus, they might be a little mad, much too hungry and filled with hubris. But like Henry's explorers, they will take a government program and transform the world while making themselves and their country rich.

These are extreme thoughts, but Sagres makes you wild if you let it. What was done here staggers the imagination and causes me to hunger for more. Certainly, European imperialism brought misery to the world. But the world was making itself miserable before, and has since. Ours has always been a brutal world. And the Europe Henry founded did not merely oppress and exploit, it also left as its legacy something extraordinary: a world that knew itself and all of its parts.

The European Legacy

It is odd to be thinking of Europe's legacy while sitting here in Portugal. Only the dead leave legacies, and Europe is not dead. Yet something in it has died. The swagger and confidence of a great civilization is simply not there, at least not on the European peninsula. Instead, there is caution and fear. You get the sense in Europe of a fear that any decisive action will tear the place apart.

There is a great deal of discussion about Europe's economic crisis and finding a way to return to the lost promise of the European Union. But what was that promise? It was a promise of comfort and security and what they called "soft power." The European search for comfort and safety is not trivial, not after the horrors of the 20th century. The British and French have given up empires, Russia has given up communism, Germany and Italy have given up fascism and racism. The world is better off without these things. But what follows, what is left?  

Looking out a window at the cape on which Henry's school was built, it is difficult to connect today's Europe with his. His was poorer, more diseased, more unjust than this one. Life was harder and bleaker than we can imagine. As someone closer to the harder and bleaker side of Europe than to its glories, I can understand not wanting Europe to go there again. But there is no one without guilt, especially those who carefully catalogue the guilt of others. It is also impossible to imagine a truly human life without the hunger hidden inside the princely monk Henry. 

We humans are caught between the hunger for glory and the price you pay and the crimes you commit in pursuing it. To me, the tension between the hunger for ordinary comforts and the need for transcendence seems to lie at the heart of the human condition. Europe has chosen comfort, and now has lost it. It sought transcendence and tore itself apart. The latter might have been Henry's legacy, but ah, to have gone to his school with da Gama and Magellan.

The original full version of the article can be found here.

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